The most important question to ask about any document is why the person who wrote it took the trouble and used the paper to write it. I’m having a surprisingly hard time thinking of any documents out of the hundreds of thousands that I have read in wartime archives for which that is not true. Even the most seemingly neutral bureaucratic records, such as number of trains that went through a station, could have been falsified for various reasons.

But that is a level of research that is not likely to come up in looking for your own family’s history, so let’s take a much more obvious example.
In 1945 a young woman wrote that her husband, who died in the concentration camps, gave away his fortune to help Engelandvaarders escape. But just because she says it does not make it true. You have to ask yourself a number of questions.

The first asks about the context of the report. Why did she write it and for whom? Was it in her private diary? Was it a letter to a friend? Was it part of a legal claim to have the money returned to her from government funds? In short, does she have anything to gain from this claim? Obviously, if the government reimburses her for the money she says that her husband gave away, she has a lot to gain. I’m not saying that she didn’t deserve it or that she might not have wholly believed that her husband gave away all that money. But I am saying that you cannot take such a claim at face value.

If the widow stands to gain something, you have to ask some more questions. Does she offer any proof? For instance, are there letters from Engelandvaarders that testify that her husband gave them money or paid their expenses? Are their testimonials from any of his resistance colleagues saying that they used his private funds to pay for the escape line? In the absence of any of those, look further in the dossier in which this claim was filed. Did the bureaucrat who processed the claim make a recommendation for or against it? Did he ask other resisters for their opinion about the claim? The answer is probably yes because governments didn’t just hand out money to anyone who called himself a resister. If every other document in the file supports the claim, then there’s a better chance that it’s true. If all the other documents suggest that the widow is deluded in her grief, then the claim is probably not true.

Does that mean that her husband was not a resister and did not use some of his own money for the cause? No. It just means that no one at the time, who knew him and the situation, believed that he used that much money for the cause. If you can’t find other files in other documents about the question of the money, the best you can say is that the widow claimed he spent a fortune but was unable to convince the authorities of it. Of course, if the money is not relevant to the story you are telling, you do not need to bring it up at all.

That’s an extreme example of a document that cannot be taken out of context and at face value. Not every document requires that much work to substantiate. But every document needs its context, and you always have to keep the questions of who, when and why in mind when doing research.